On the last day of AltspaceVR (opens in new tab), a virtual reality chat app that was shut down due to lack of funding before Microsoft acquired and reopened it (opens in new tab), friends sang songs and took group photos and exchanged contact information in a big party. It was bittersweet, so much so that it felt anomalous—where were the callous internet people I'm used to playing games with? The ones who are always yelling at me? After an evening in newly-popular upstart VRChat (opens in new tab), I can confirm that I have found them.
VRChat is a free-to-play, user-created multiverse where bored teenagers coalesce at your feet as hordes of miniaturized abominations of Knuckles (opens in new tab) from Sonic the Hedgehog, ten-foot-tall anime women chastise you for looking at them in the most unsettling text-to-speech voice available, and a melancholy Brian from Family Guy gazes at the floor and then says, "I'm Brian Griffin" while continuing to stare—just standing there, waiting for nothing.
As I played VRChat last night, I began to accept that it's a hell I deserve. I deserve it for reasons that begin in the late '90s when I probably went into a Yahoo! chat room and said "fuck Neon Genesis" or something to start a fight. This is the natural evolution of that primordial pre-meme '90s trolling, crude image editing, and Flash animation, of making an unending stream of pop culture references throughout the 2000s, of replacing identity with brands, of being so hyped for the potential of expensive goggles that the universe needed to punish me. For all these reasons and more, I absolutely deserve to spend an eternity in an anime nightclub dodging the Lots-o'-Huggin' Bear from Toy Story as he charges at me declaring that he needs strawberries.
(If you want, you can play VRChat without a VR headset, but you won't have a proper experience that way. It really has to feel like Brian Griffin is right there if you're going to be reminded of how this is all your fault for unironically liking Family Guy in the aughts and ironically reading Ready Player One a few years ago.)
Here's how it happened. While VRChat is laggy and prone to bouts of impromptu loading, it's a good, simple concept: expressive avatars, basic physics (I enjoyed chucking plates of food at people in an attempt to 'serve' them), and a Unity SDK so that anyone with the requisite skills can create worlds and characters. Second Life developer Linden Lab has been working on a similar concept (opens in new tab), called Sansar, Microsoft now has the reins of Altspace (opens in new tab), and there are surely many other sandbox-y VR social experiences in the works. VR is best as a social experience in my view.
Fun things have and will come from these virtual spaces, but VRChat's recent popularity—which took the servers down yesterday and prompted a message (opens in new tab) from the small team behind it—hasn't been due to the magic of friendship. It's largely due to the 'Ugandan Knuckles' meme, which Polygon has already explained (opens in new tab) in detail. And it's still mainly that: a competition to be the next meme, or to maintain the dominance of the current one, with everyone shouting over each other in the hope of spurring mass action toward their cause of getting likes and subscribes. And a lot of racism. It's the PUBG lobby, but forever, and it's where I'll wake up when I die as punishment for the years in the early 2010s when I cared deeply about getting favs on Twitter.
I'm hoping that after this popularity spike some fun communities will settle into VRChat, and I wish the developers the best of luck as they attempt to "maintain and shape a community that is fun and safe for everyone." It'll depend on demographics, on what players create, and as currently evidenced, on what streamers and YouTubers encourage. I don't know what these virtual spaces are going to look like as VR becomes better and cheaper, though it's safe to assume that everything you can find currently in Second Life will be found in VR at some point, and more.
In the meantime, at least in VRChat, it's memes and anime, awkward silence pierced with shouting streamers, everyone either uncomfortable, apathetic, or on the offense. It's a hell we built for ourselves, and I can't pretend it isn't funny that all the grand talk about the potential of VR—which I previously contributed to—has led to an anime girl idly blinking at me while embedded in a cardboard box. Long live the new flesh.